Portrait of a Man and Two Women

I learned there’s a skill to moving through the medina, you have to glide and give a discreet quick flick of the hips to avoid the donkeys and the designer suitcases shuffling through the dust. It’s a tango; it’s a salsa with scooters, smoking sardines and sultry stallholders, a constant calypso over the crude cobbled canvas of Marrakech.

She saved me by grasping my hand.

Deftly weaving a deliberate pattern past the catcalls and shadow puppets that filled the tight caverns with incense and Argan oil and colours so rich and so deep that my eyes burned with desire. Turquoise, amber and coral reflected in swan necked silver teapots pulled at my soul and screamed into my heart.

I caught up with her arm. The check shirt billowed over her cargo pants while her sneakers strode past frivolities. She was a shawl of titian curls knitting us through compliments in French, then Arabic and eventually translating for my benefit into English.

The Welsh name for Ireland … Erin.

Erin’s skin was the colour of milk with a touch of afternoon Assam. Her Canadian, sapling, planting fingers tightened their grip. I danced faster.

She laughed.

Pausing only to place some dirhams in an outstretched palm.

If she hadn’t saved me I would still be hidden behind the magic carpets and camel bags. Sitting cross-legged, opposite the shopkeeper, beside a baby monkey’s skull and sipping mint tea.

I shuddered at the sound of the Abdou’s serious descriptions of talismans and treasures traded from the desert. His accent whispered words which I barely understood.

‘We will be friends.’

I watched the syllables as they left his lips and slid over cracked terracotta jugs. They crawled through the dust, the redundant chastity belts and Tuareg antiquities. Then wound themselves around wooden bowls filled with beads used to buy his ancestors … until they fluttered into my throat and I swallowed them whole.

I opened the album he offered me.

It was filled with images of his family. Faces from around the globe were looking up from their couscous smiling into the camera. Children posed by the side of 4x4s in the sand dunes. Everyone appeared to be enjoying the tour.

‘And your wife? Do you have a wife? Children? Maybe you have children.’

‘No. There is no wife, no child.’

‘Brothers? Sisters?’

‘Are you married?’


‘And the Rasta … ?

‘He’s my friend.’

‘You … ‘

‘There have been women, many women. Now, now I am celibate.’

‘I am celibate too.’

Our pupils locked. There was silence.

I moved to leave.

With elaborate ceremony Abdou poured the second cup of tea. The stream of syrup splashed bubbles into the glass.

‘Please stay. Take more tea.’

‘Thank you.’

‘We have a proverb.’

‘Tell me.’

‘Le premier verre est aussi amer que la vie.

The first glass is as bitter as life.

Le deuxième est aussi fort que l’amour.

The second glass is as strong as love.

Le troisième est aussi doux que la mort.

The third glass is as gentle as death.’

I drank the treat … forgetting my diabetes.

‘Do you mind if I light a cigarette?’

‘You know … I don’t smoke?

‘Yes I know.’

His lips belonged in a gallery, displayed beside the Art of Nasr’Eddine Dinet.

They appeared to be stained sienna then tinted with the juice of blueberries. Their outline drawn with a steady hand from a brush dipped into a paint box, opulent with the pigment freshly squeezed from cherries, aubergines, blackberries and plums.

Without moving Abdou rummaged through a hill of brittle leather pouches. He unravelled chains as long as serpents, bracelets with bells no bigger than ants and handed them to me. He continued to whisper their history into my world.

I wedged a bangle up close to my elbow. Abdou approved of its beauty although he wasn’t sure of its age. His fingers stroked the three raised coins, feeling for the date or the year it was crafted. I held my breath and allowed the metal to bite my skin even though it hurt.

My blood sugar had escalated.

‘How much?’

He tore a piece of paper from a note pad, studied the pieces I’d pulled to one side and carefully wrote down some figures.

I lowered my eyes and nodded.

Abdou took the paper back and wrote with equal precision his name, address and telephone number.

‘This is not business. It is love.’

After unravelling his turban he re-coiled it to cover his mouth and his nose, as if expecting a sandstorm. Then he plucked some pomegranates from a plastic carrier bag  … ripped one apart, tore at the tough flesh and offered me the sticky jewels.

I took them.

The day had disappeared.

Beyond the souks, and the rose stained walls of Marrakech caravans of travel weary traders lit their lamps, gave thanks, stroked their camels and shared their stories and secrets.

In Jemaa el-fna, the square of the executions, under the light of a laughing moon tourists were being charmed, snakes were sleeping in the evening smoke and fortune-tellers were predicting the future.

When Erin arrived Abdou didn’t introduce us. He was too busy pouring our third glass of tea.

She refused his hospitality and saved me instead.